Why is San Francisco Gold Hot Right Now?

As recently as a few years ago, I was wondering why San Francisco gold coins weren’t as popular as I thought they should have been (a blog from one year ago, for example). But a combination of factors has quickly turned the market for certain San Francisco gold coins, and still other factors bode well for the future popularity of nearly all gold coins from this facility.

Why have San Francisco gold coins gone from unpopular to popular in a relatively short period of time? I think there are a few factors at play.

The first is obvious: rarity has really become en vogue in the coin market in the last few years, and it is hard to argue with the fact that most pre-1878 San Francisco gold coins are both absolute and condition rarities. You don’t have to suspend disbelief when, for example, you look up the number of coins graded at PCGS for 1860-S eagles and you see a whopping 23 graded (and assuming the typical number of resubmissions, this might equate to as few as 15 separate examples). Many new collectors have become attracted to coins which are rare not just because a piece of plastic says so.

The second is less obvious: I see younger collectors coming into the rare date gold market and these individuals tend to not want to buy the coins that their parents were attracted to. Which, in certain cases, means out with the southern branch mint coins and in with the western mints. If you think about it, Charlotte and Dahlonega coinage has reigned supreme in dated gold popularity circles for over 25 years. Maybe it’s just time the pendulum swung somewhere else, and San Francisco coins became popular as a result.

The third is simultaneously obvious and not obvious: the various shipwrecks full of San Francisco double eagles have focused considerable attention on large-sized coins from this mint, and the newly-discovered Saddle Ridge Hoard is likely to do this yet again. Does the typical collector who buys an 1857-S S.S. Central America double eagle in MS65 suddenly take an interest in 1857-S gold dollars or quarter eagles? Probably not, but you can certainly make the connection between the new interest in San Francisco gold with all the publicity these finds have generated in both the pre-internet and internet eras.

The Saddle Ridge Hoard motivated me to provide readers with a basic guide to San Francisco gold coins of all denominations, and to provide some collecting tips as well.

Before we look at each denomination and type, a couple of things need mentioning for beginning collectors. The San Francisco mint opened in 1854 and struck gold coins, with occasional interruptions, until 1930. Gold coins were struck in the following denominations: dollars, quarter eagles, three dollar gold pieces, half eagles, eagles, and double eagles.

Gold Dollars

Type One (1854 only)

1854-S $1.00 PCGS MS64 CAC

The 1854-S dollar is a one-year type which saw a mintage of 14,632. It is common in circulated grades and available from time to time in the lower Mint State grades. It becomes rare in MS63 to MS64, and Gems are extremely rare. There are probably two or three known in MS65, and the best I have personally seen is the Pittman I: 863 coin, now graded MS65 by PCGS, which was recently sold to a California specialist; it brought $33,000 back in its 1997 auction appearance. I like this issue a lot and find it to be much undervalued, given its numismatic significance as a dual first-year-of-issue and one year type.

Type Two (1856)

1856-S $1.00 NGC MS64 CAC

The ill-fated Type Two gold dollar design was introduced in 1854, but it didn’t reach the San Francisco mint until 1856; a year in which the Philadelphia and Dahlonega mints were already striking dollars with the new Type Three design.

The 1856-S dollar is a common issue in circulated grades and a surprisingly high number exist from the original mintage of 24,600. It is moderately scarce in the lower Uncirculated grades, rare in properly graded MS62 to MS63, and very rare above this. I have never seen a Gem, and maybe four or five in MS64 which I thought were choice. The current auction record for this date is $52,875, set by an NGC MS64 with CAC approval which sold as Heritage 2/13: 3910.

There are two varieties known for this date: the normal mintmark, and the visually impressive S/S which is actually the most common of the pair.

The 1856-S is another numismatically significant issue which is a one-year type.

Type Three (1857-1860 and 1870)

1857-S $1.00 NGC MS61 CAC

Type Three dollars were made at the San Francisco mint for just five years, including a ten year gap between the fourth and the final issue. The first four issues all have reasonably similar mintages (between 10,000 and 13,000) and similar rarity profiles. All are usually seen in EF45 to AU55 grades and are very scarce in the lower Mint State grades. Most are exceedingly rare in MS63 and above, and non-existent in Gem. The 1870-S has a mintage of only 3,000 coins but it is more available than its earlier counterparts, especially in comparatively high grades.

The Type Three gold dollars from San Francisco are very affordable and a nice About Uncirculated set could be assembled for around $10,000. I think these coins are very undervalued, especially in properly graded MS61 and above.

Liberty Head Quarter Eagles (1854-1863, 1865-1873, 1875-1879)

1854-S $2.50 PCGS VF35, ex Norweb

The quarter eagles from this mint begin with the second rarest gold coin ever produced in San Francisco: the 1854-S. A mere 246 were struck, and there are an estimated dozen or so known with the single finest of these grading AU50 at PCGS. For many years, the 1854-S quarter eagle was a neglected Classic Rarity. Prices began to appreciate around ten years ago and have risen since, but I still feel that the 1854-S is an undervalued coin compared to other less rare 19th and 20th century issues.

The other San Francisco quarter eagles from the pre-Civil War years are less interesting (and far more available) than the 1854-S. The Civil War issues themselves are scarce with the low mintage (8,000 struck) 1862-S leading the way.

The 1865 through 1873 issues form one of the more undervalued groups in all of American numismatics. These coins are certainly not rare in circulated grades, but nice AU coins are typically available in the $1,500-2,500 range and these represent excellent value. Most of these dates are even available, from time to time, in the lower Uncirculated and are still comparably affordable.

This denomination was terminated by the San Francisco mint after 1879. Today, quarter eagles from this mint are not terribly popular with collectors. This could very easily change and a nice quality set, minus the rare 1854-S, is still within reach of the collector with an average budget. In fact, if I were a collector with a budget of around $2,500 per coin, I would seriously look at specializing in San Francisco quarter eagles.

Three Dollar Gold Pieces (1855-1857, 1860 and 1870)

1855-S $3.00 PCGS MS61

Production of this odd denomination was a seeming afterthought at the San Francisco mint with only one issue, the 1856-S, having a significant original mintage figure. The four obtainable San Francisco three dollar gold pieces are all reasonably obtainable in EF and the lower AU grades, but all are scarce in properly graded AU55, rare in AU58, and very rare in Uncirculated.

The rarest collectible three dollar gold piece from this mint is the 1855-S with an original mintage of just 6,600. It is a numismatically significant issue due to its status as a first-year issue, but unlike its counterparts the 1854-O and 1854-D, it is not a one-year type and it is not as popular as the two southern coins. The 1855-S is exceedingly rare in Uncirculated and there is a single Proof known which brought $1,322,500 in Heritage’s 8/11 auction.

The 1870-S is a unique issue which is in the ANA Museum. It was purchased by Harry Bass from the Eliasberg sale in October 1982, and when it next becomes available, it will shatter all prices records for a gold coin from the San Francisco mint.

As far as collecting this series goes, it is short-lived and fairly easy to complete with just four issues (not including, of course, the unique 1870-S). For $30,000 or so, a nice AU set could be assembled. An Uncirculated set is possible, but it would be very challenging, especially if the collector is careful to avoid coins graded MS60 and MS61 which are debatable as to their “newness.”

Liberty Head Half Eagles

a. No Motto, 1854-1866

1856-S $5.00 NGC AU58

The thirteen coin San Francisco No Motto Liberty Head half eagle is a very challenging set. Only one or two coins (the 1856-S and 1857-S) are reasonably easy to find in collector grades and every date in this series is, at the very least, rare to extremely rare in the higher AU grades.

The kingpin of this set, and arguably the most valuable gold coin ever struck at this mint is the 1854-S. Only 268 were made, and just three are known today with one in the Smithsonian Institution and the others in private collections. The finest of the three is the Eliasberg coin, currently owned by a Texas collector, which could bring $4-5 million or more if offered for sale today.

The next rarest No Motto half eagle from this mint is the 1864-S of which an estimated 30 or so are known including one gem PCGS MS65+ example which is ex Norweb/Bass.

Many of the San Francisco No Motto half eagles are either unknown or unique in Uncirculated, and even the reasonably common 1856-S and 1857-S are very rare in Uncirculated with just three or four known for the former and seven to nine for the latter.

For many years, demand for the rare No Motto half eagles from San Francisco languished. This was due to a combination of factors including conspicuous overgrading of available coins by the services, the lack of published references, inflated values in published price guides, and more.

Around three or four years ago, No Motto half eagles from San Francisco became more popular. Interestingly, prices rose from the bottom up. I began noticing coins like 1858-S half eagles in VF25 and 1860-S half eagles in VF30 selling for very strong prices at auction, especially if they were in PCGS holders, choice and original for the grade, and eye appealing for the issues. Coin like 1858-S or 1860-S half eagles graded AU55 haven’t quite shown this level of appreciation, but this tends to be because most of the coins of this caliber are not CAC quality.

b. With Motto, 1866-1888, 1892-1906

1867-S $5.00 PCGS EF45 CAC

The With Motto half eagles from San Francisco can basically be divided into two distinct groups: the rare (and mostly) interesting issues from 1866 to 1876 and the available (and mostly) uninteresting issues from 1877 to 1906.

The motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse of the half eagle denomination in 1866 but no before dual varieties were produced at the San Francisco mint. 9,000 of the No Motto half eagles were struck compared to 34,000 of the With Motto coons and the latter are more available.

My favorite “sleeper” date from this era is the 1867-S which is rarer than its mintage of 29,000 would suggest. There are only 60-80 known in all grades, and I have never seen one above AU55. Despite this issue’s obvious scarcity, it is affordable and I recently sold a pleasing PCGS EF45 for just a hair over $3,000.

1876-S $5.00 PCGS AU55 CAC

The 1876-S is the single rarest With Motto half eagle from this mint. Only 4,000 were produced and this date is not often seen above AU50. It is unique in Uncirculated with the Garrett coin having been graded MS64 by PCGS; nothing else known comes close.

Beginning in 1877, mintage figures increase for half eagles from San Francisco and by the end of the 1880’s, they sometimes exceed 1,000,000 coins. Many of the San Francisco half eagles from the 1880’s, 1890’s and early 1900’s exist in significant quantity in grades up to MS64 and the high mintage 1901-S is common even in Gem Uncirculated.

The “sleeper” issue for the late dates from San Francisco is the 1894-S. It has a much lower mintage than the other post-1878 dates. This date is not often seen above MS62 although an amazing NGC MS69 (ex Clapp/Eliasberg) is known; it recently sold for $176,250.

The With Motto half eagles from this mint are not as popular with collectors as the No Motto issues. This means that there are some great values in this sub-set, especially in the 1867-1876 date range. The later dates are currently of interest primarily to type collectors but it is certainly possible that they may receive more focus from date collectors in the future.

Indian Head Half Eagles (1908-1916)

The attractive incuse Indian Head design was created by Bela Lyon Pratt and it was used on both the quarter eagle and half eagle denomination. The San Francisco mint produced half eagles using this design from 1908 through 1916.

1915-S $5.00 PCGS MS62 CAC

There are no great rarities in the nine-coin Indian Head half eagle set from San Francisco, unlike the eagles and double eagles from this era. All of the San Francisco issues of this type can be easily found in AU grades and even in the lower Mint State range at reasonably affordable prices. These issues tend to become scarcer (and expensive) in the MS63 to MS64 range and nearly all are very rare in MS65.

Indian Head half eagles tend to be collected in one of two ways: in affordable AU58 to MS62 grades or in challenging MS64 to MS66 grades. In the case of the former, the San Francisco specialist will have an easy time. In the case of the latter, he will be greatly challenged as dates like the 1913-S and 1915-S are extremely rare in Gem.

Liberty Head Eagles

a. No Motto, 1854-1866

1864-S $10.00 PCGS VF30

Unlike its quarter eagle and half eagle counterparts, the Liberty Head eagle series contains no stoppers like the 1854-S from both denominations. That said, the No Motto eagles from San Francisco contain many very dates and one—the 1864-S—which has finally been recognized as a truly rare issue.

The 1854-S eagle is an interesting issue as it has a comparatively high mintage of 123,826 and it is rather easy to locate in EF and lower AU grades. The real “sleeper” among the early San Francisco eagles is the 1855-S with a mintage of just 9,000. This date is unknown in Uncirculated and very rare in AU. Other early dates from this mint which are rare to very rare include the 1859-S and the 1860-S.

I mentioned the 1864-S eagle in the opening paragraph of this section and I think some more comments are in order about this date. Of the 2,500 struck, there are likely no more than 25-30 known. For close to a decade, most of the available specimens were sold to one collector and now that his collection is being sold, price records for this date are being shattered. Heritage recently sold a PCGS EF45 for $117,500 and it is likely that this price will be eclipsed if a nicer example is made available in the coming months.

Despite the great fanfare that the 1864-S eagle has recently received, other rare issues in this series remain fairly priced. I am a big fan of the 1860-S but I like the Civil War issues as well. With the exception of the 1854-S, 1856-S and 1857-S, virtually all of these No Motto issues are nearly unobtainable above AU50, especially with original color and choice surfaces.

b. With Motto (1866-1889, 1892-1903, 1904-1907)

1870-S $10.00 NGC AU55

As with the half eagles from this mint, there are two distinct rarity profiles for San Francisco With Motto eagles. The coins struck from 1866 through 1878 tend to be very scarce to rare in all grades and virtually impossible to find in Uncirculated. while the post-1878 dates were struck in greater quantities and are much more available. In fact, the 1901-S has the highest mintage figure of any Liberty Head eagle and it is the single most available date of this type to locate in MS65 to MS66 grades.

The top “sleeper” dates in the With Motto series? In the earlier dates, I like the 1870-S and the 1876-S (although this second date is not really a secret any longer) and in the later dates, I like the 1894-S and 1895-S; two issues which are very scarce in Uncirculated.

It is feasible to collect the With Motto San Francisco eagles by date as there are no stoppers and many of the later issues can be found in comparatively high grades. While this type hasn’t really been much collected by date, perhaps the discovery of some interesting With Motto San Francisco eagles in the Saddle Ridge Hoard might spur interest.

Indian Head Eagles (1908-1916, 1920 and 1930)

1908-S $10.00 PCGS MS64 CAC

Augustus St. Gaudens’ Indian Head design was introduced on the eagle denomination in 1907, but the first San Francisco coins were not struck until 1908. They were produced without interruption through 1916, then in 1920 and 1930.

The two rarest San Francisco issues of this type are the 1920-S and 1930-S. Both were heavily melted and didn’t see much in the way of circulation. The 1920-S is the rarer of the two and it is extremely rare in higher grades. The finest known is the famous PCGS MS67 from the Duckor collection that realized $1,725,000 in March 2007. The finest known 1930-S is also graded MS67 by PCGS and it realized $299,000 in a January 2009 auction.

A date which is not as well-known is the 1913-S. This is the true “condition rarity” among San Francisco eagles of this design. It is only moderately scarce in the lowest Uncirculated grades but it is rare in MS63, and Gems are extremely rare. The finest known is an NGC MS67 (formerly graded MS66 by PCGS) which brought $299,000 in 2009, and $287,500 in 2007.

A Gem set of San Francisco Indian Head eagles would be extremely difficult to complete and very expensive as well. A set in MS63 to MS64 (with a few Gems included) is more feasible, but certainly not an easy accomplishment.

Liberty Head Double Eagles

a. Type One, No Motto (1854-1866)

1854-S $20.00 NGC AU58+ CAC

For a variety of reasons, Type One Liberty Head double eagles are the single most avidly collected series of gold coins from the San Francisco mint. These coins are big, they can be found in relatively high grades, they are affordable, and only two issues—the 1861-S Paquet and the 1866-S No Motto—are hard to locate.

The first year of issue, the 1854-S, is a curious coin. It is reasonably available in higher grades but nearly every known example has matte surfaces from exposure to seawater. High-grade examples with original surfaces are extremely rare.

Many dates of this type are plentiful in Uncirculated due to shipwrecks such as the S.S. Central America, S.S. Brother Jonathan, and the S.S. Republic. Nearly every serious collector has seen or may even own a nice Uncirculated 1857-S double eagle from the Central America. There were thousands of choice to gem examples of this date, and they spurred considerable interest in other San Francisco double eagles and shipwrecks coinage in particular.

1861-S Paquet $20.00 NGC AU53

The rarest Type One double eagle from this mint is the 1861-S Paquet Reverse. A total of 19,250 were struck but most were melted and an estimated 100 or so are known today, mostly in EF40 to AU50. This issue is unknown in Uncirculated, and most seen have very heavily abraded surfaces, poor luster and negative eye appeal.

1866-S No Motto $20.00 PCGS EF40 CAC

Another interesting variety is the 1866-S No Motto. 120,000 were struck before orders were received to changeover to the new With Motto reverse. Many were melted but this variety has lately become very popular with collectors. A PCGS MS62+ from the Saddle Ridge Hoard is the new finest known and this is likely to be the single most highly valued and sought-after coin from this treasure.

Type One doubles from San Francisco are popularly collected by date. With the exception of the 1854-S, 1861-S Paquet, and 1866-S No Motto, all eleven coins can be obtained in nice AU grades for four figure prices. This set could not be completed in Uncirculated due to the current status of the Paquet and most high-budget collectors “settle” for an AU55 or AU58 example.

b. Type Two, With Motto (1866-1876)

1866-S $20.00 With Motto, NGC MS61

The 11 coin set of Type Two Liberty Head double eagles is very popular as well and, unlike the Type One series mentioned above, it can be completed in Uncirculated grades. The two rarest San Francisco Type Two issues in higher grades are the 1866-S With Motto and the 1867-S. Both of these are seldom seen above MS60 to MS61 and are characterized by heavily abraded surfaces and soft strikes.

A few of the Type Two San Francisco issues are relatively plentiful in MS62 to MS63 and, as a result, they are popular with type collectors. These include the 1875-S and the 1876-S.

The “sleeper” date of this type is the 1873-S Closed 3 which is an issue almost never seen above MS60 to MS61.

c. Type Three, With Motto and value spelled TWENTY DOLLARS (1877-1885, 1887-1907)

1877-S $20.00 PCGS MS62 CAC

Type Three San Francisco issues are typically divided into two groups: those from 1877 to 1881 which are condition rarities and the later issues which tend to be far more available, even in higher grades.

The 1877-S through 1881-S double eagles are all extremely scarce above MS62 and mostly unknown (at least until the discovery of some exceptional pieces in the Saddle Ridge hoard) in Gem Uncirculated. These dates tend to be extremely abraded hence the reason most are graded AU58 to MS61 by the services.

The Type Three double eagles from 1882 onwards are found a bit more often in MS63 and even MS64 grades but nearly all dates are rare to very rare in MS65.

This is an easily completable series which should see the most immediate benefit from the Saddle Ridge Hoard due to the fact that most of the coins in this 1,400+ piece group were of this type. Some dates, such as the 1889-S and 1890-S, are suddenly far more available in MS64 and MS65 than before as a result of discoveries from the hoard but these coins are likely to be quickly absorbed into the market.

St. Gaudens With Motto (1908-1911, 1913-1916, 1920, 1922, 1924-27, 1930)

The beloved St. Gaudens double eagle was produced in huge quantities at the San Francisco mint. Dates range from very common to very rare.

The San Francisco double eagles which are hard to find are rare as a result of heavy meltings. As an example, there were 558,000 double eagles made at this mint in 1920 but the survival rate is low and today the 1920-S is represented by fewer than 300 coins. In Gem, this date is extremely rare with probably no more than four or five known.

The single rarest St. Gaudens double eagle from this mint is the 1930-S. It has the lowest mintage of any date from San Francisco except for the 1908-S (which was saved as a first year of issue) and around 125-150 are known, mostly in the MS62 to MS64 range.

Collectors don’t typically specialize in San Francisco Saints as they tend to focus on either the whole series if they have big ambitions, or they dabble in the series with occasional forays into the higher grade type coin realm and/or slightly better dates.

So there you have it. In around 4,000 words an encapsulation of the various types and designs of San Francisco gold coinage, with pieces ranging from super common to exceedingly rare (and even in the case of the 1870-S $3.00, unique).

I personally feel that the future for better quality gold coins from this mint is rosy. I’ve seen a strong influx of new collectors into this area of the market, and prices have risen accordingly. But there are many undervalued, sleeper issues that are as good a value as anything in the U.S. gold coin market.


Do you buy rare gold coins?

Do you have coins to sell?

Would you like to have the world’s leading expert with you assembling a set of coins?

Contact me, Doug Winter, directly at (214) 675-9897 or by email at dwn@ont.com.


How To Become A Coin Kingpin

Deciding what to collect can often be a case of deciding what not to collect. This zen-like statement actually makes a lot of sense once you get over the initial "huh?" Let me explain. Anyone with a more-than-casual interest in coins wants to be a force within the series he collects. By this, I mean he wants to be known as "the CC half eagle guy," or "the face of the Ten Indian market." So how do you get to be "the man" or, better yet, "the kingpin" of the area that you have chosen to specialize in? I think the answers aren't necessarily as intuitive as you might think they are.

1. Suss Out the Competition: Let's say that you've decided to collect Carson City eagles in very high grade. You research the market and determine that these coins are very rare and even though they are expensive they seem within your budget. You still need to find out who your competition is and how far along they are.

Let's say that your major competition in this series is a Texas billionaire with a virtually insatiable demand for the finest known. And he still needs many coins in the set. In this case, you have a problem unless you, yourself, are a billionaire and you are content with knowing that every coin you purchase is probably going to break a record for the date/series. This is discouraging.

But let's say that your major competition--said Texas billionaire--is virtually complete with this particular series and he has shown that he isn't likely to upgrade his Carson City eagles unless they are very, very special coins. In this case, you might not be as discouraged.

Or, you can be creative and look at it this way...

2. Be Adaptable: Just because the series you want to collect has a roadblock like a super-wealthy collector at the top end of the market, this doesn't have to stop you. Instead of buying the finest known Dahlonega half eagles or Charlotte gold dollars, what about a "gem slider" set of choice, original AU58 coins? Or what about putting together a set that features pedigreed coins? Or a set with nicely matched colors? Or a "sharp strike set" in which every coin represents as sharp a strike as possible for a specific issue? The options can be nearly limitless.

3. Timing is Everything: I'm not a huge fan of Gem Saint Gaudens double eagles as I don't think that they necessarily offer the same degree of value as much rarer 19th century gold issues do. But they are currently a comparably good value because of a unique set of circumstances. As recently as five years ago, there were a number of wealthy collectors in this arena and many of them needed the same six or seven rare coins in order to finish their set. When any of these coins came up for sale, it was going to be a Clash of the Titans and a bidding war was certain to erupt.

But just like magic, nearly all of these collectors went poof at the same time. Some lost interest, some completed their set, and some were hurt by the Financial Meltdown of 2008 and had to sell their coins. What this means, a few years later, is that there is now an excellent opportunity for a new collector to become a Kingpin of Saints.

Let me give you two examples. In the Saint series, the 1921 is recognized as one of the ultimate condition rarities. In November 2005, a beautiful PCGS MS66 example sold at auction for $1,092,500. The same coin sold for $747,500 in January 2012. In September 2007, a PCGS MS65 example of this same date sold at auction for $1,012,000. In August 2012, another PCGS MS65 sold for $587,500. Why did these coins--both were very rare and all were very nice--sell for such discounts? Because the top of the Saint Gaudens double eagle market lacked the multiple buyers that it had in 2005 and in 2007. But if you add two or three big players into the mix, I can just about guarantee you that the next nice quality PCGS MS65 or MS66 1921 double eagle that is offered will sell at levels close to--if not at--previous market highs. It has happened before and it is inevitable that it will happen again.

4. It's All About the Relationships. Unless you are willing to devote almost all of your free time to studying about coins and pursuing what you need, you are going to have to establish a relationship with a dealer (or two) who is a well-connected specialist within your intended field of Kingpin-dom.

Let me give you a pertinent example. I recently handled an extremely rare No Motto New Orleans half eagle. This is a coin that I could have sold to a number of collectors. But I chose to sell it to a collector who has nurtured a close relationship with me over the years. He's a terrific guy; sophisticated, well-read on the subject of New Orleans gold, and always ready to buy an important coin that will improve his collection. Because he has been such a pleasure to deal with over the years he was able to purchase a coin which gave him a complete set of New Orleans half eagles in Uncirculated; quite possibly the first such set ever completed.

There's something else about our relationship, though, that transcends coins. A few years ago, someone very close to me was sick and needed immediate care. I called this collector for a reference and within a few minutes I was able to make an appointment with a specialist who was very difficult to see due to his busy schedule. Like I said, it's all about relationships...

5. What's Old is New Again. If you want to be the Kingpin of your series or collecting area(s) you can focus on coins that are traditionally obscure and lack collector interest as a result. Or you can focus on coins that have traditionally been popular but for some reason are currently out of favor. (And, yes, this point is fairly closely related to point #3, above).

For many years, Charlotte gold was as popular as Dahlonega gold and it was certainly far more popular than New Orleans. But Charlotte gold has become the least popular of the three southern branch mints. Lower prices and availability of some great coins in the past five to ten years have meant that at least one or two collectors could have put together fantastic, world-class set; and at comparably reasonable prices as well.

My point here is this: just like with the Gem rare date Saints that I discussed above, Charlotte gold is a proven area of the market with a good reference book and a long collecting history. Values peaked for these coins around 1999-2000 and, in some cases, Condition Census coins are selling for less than they were nearly a decade and a half ago. These seem to be a surer bet than something like high grade With Motto San Francisco eagles from the 1880's and 1890's that have never really been popular and possibly never will be.

What are some areas of the numismatic market in which it is still possible to be a kingpin? A few of my suggestions are as follows:

1. Gold Dollars: There are two or three collectors competing for finest known coins at the very top end of the market but this series offers a lot of opportunity for the kingpin-in-training.

2. Better Date San Francisco Gold Coins, 1854-1878: There are pockets of strength in this market but there is no one collector who I'd consider The Man when it comes to very high end SF gold.

3. Type Two Liberty Head Double Eagles: This is an area of the market that remains pretty calm after being in the spotlight for much of the 1990's and early 2000's. When really special coins become available (which is not all that often) they seem to bring considerably less than I think the are ultimately worth.

4. Indian Head Half Eagles: This is a series that tends to have periodic flares in popularity but then it grows dim for years. There is currently some rumbling in the higher end but The King of Five Indians seems to still be waiting to claim his crown.

Do you need help to become a Coin Kingpin? If so, please contact Doug Winter by email at dwn@ont.com.

The Numismatic Versus: Comparing Coin Collecting Methods

Cats versus dogs. Coke versus Pepsi. Good versus evil. You get my point: two camps competing for your heart, your affection or your soul. Its not that far-fetched to stretch this analogy out to some of the basic issues in coin collecting. No, its not the Satanic Verses; its the Numismatic Versus. OK, to be a bit more serious: there are basic issues in numismatics that split collectors down the middle. There is no real right or wrong when it comes to collecting and I am a big advocate of doing what "feels right" for the collector. That said, I think my 30+ years of experience as a dealer qualify me to render an opinion on some of these issues and that's what I'd like to do here.

1. Specialist Collecting versus Type Collecting

I have many customers who are specialists and many who are focused more in a "generalist" fashion. I respect both camps.

A specialist picks a small area of collecting and focuses on this. Dahlonega quarter eagles. New Orleans half eagles. First year and last year of issue coins. All of these are great choices for the specialist.

What I like about specialist collecting is that by having a more narrow focus, the collector can become knowledgeable more easily. As I have written before, if your collecting focus revolves around 25 half eagles from one mint, you are far more likely to learn this series as well as the typical dealer than if you are trying to learn about all the half eagles produced during the 19th century.

But there is something to be said for a more general approach. I love the concept of collecting by type. I love the fact that a type collector buys something different every time he pulls the trigger.

2. Condition Rarity versus Absolute Rarity

A coin that is a "condition rarity" is one whose primary value is based around its grade. An example of this would be an 1887-S eagle in MS65. Such a coin is extremely rare and it would sell for five-figures if available. But the same date in MS60 is extremely common and it sells for essentially no date premium.

A coin that is an "absolute rarity" is one that is rare in all grades and is desirable whether it is quite worn or superb. An example of this would be an 1862-S eagle. This is a low mintage issue with a very low survival rate to its Civil War date of issuance. This coin is desirable if it grades Very Fine or if it grades Uncirculated.

What a collector should always ask himself is "would the coin that I am buying have value if third party grading were to suddenly end?" A coin like an 1887-S eagle in MS65 might not carry a great premium if third-party grading ceased to exist. A coin like an 1862-S eagle in EF45 would still be considered desirable no matter what dictates the future of grading.

The best coins are the ones that combine absolute and grade rarity. If a coin like an 1862-S eagle in Mint State were to be discovered in Europe (I have never seen one close to Uncirculated) it would be very desirable as it combined both types of rarity in one neat package.

3. Business Strikes versus Proofs

Business strikes are coins that were made for circulation. Proofs are coins that were specially made for collectors and VIP's. The coin weenie in me likes business strikes more than Proofs because of the fact that these were coins that were used as coins are supposed to be used.

But the coin snob in me likes Proofs as well. There is no getting around the fact that a Gem Proof Liberty Head double eagle is incredibly impressive. And you have to like the Proof issues that were struck in such tiny quantities during the 1860's, 1870's and 1880's.

I tend to be a more selective buyer when it comes to proofs than business strikes. I vastly favor very rare Proofs (example: an 1878 gold dollar) than a not-so-rare Proof in a mega-grade (example: a 1904 quarter eagle in PR67 Cameo).

Can a collector buy business strikes and Proofs simultaneously? I don't see why not. In certain series, like Type Three Liberty Head double eagles, there are Proof-only issues that are collected side-by-side with business strikes. Like owning a dog and a cat at the same time, I say "yes!" to the collector who buys interesting Proofs and business strikes together.

4. Gold versus Silver versus Copper

You are reading this article on a website whose URL is raregoldcoins.com so you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure which of these three coinage metals I favor.

But let me at least explain why I do.

Gold is a precious metal with strong demand around the world. Egyptian Pharaohs were buried with spectacular gold ornaments. The last time I checked, there were no silver or copper trinkets in the pyramids.

Try to explain to a wealthy Chinese collector why he should spend $100,000 on an Indian Cent. Not easy, right? But don't you think this same individual would more likely "get" the concept of an Uncirculated 1871-CC double eagle at $75,000?

Copper coins are great and I personally collect Liberty Seated silver coins and love them. However, as far as being a dealer goes, I'm pro-gold and more so now than ever.

5. 19th Century versus 20th Century

When I began specializing in United States gold coinage back in the early 1980's, I decided to focus on 19th century coins because they were more affordable and because they seemed like better value. Three decades later I still believe this.

Now don't get me wrong. I think 20th century coins are great. I think St. Gaudens double eagles and Indian Head eagles are the most beautiful regular issue coins that the U.S. Mint ever produced. And the incuse designs of the Indian quarter eagle and half eagle series really appeal to me. But 20th century gold tends to be the ultimate in condition rarity and, as I discussed in #2 above, I have always been more of an absolute rarity kinda guy.

I look at 20th century gold as the Contemporary Art of the numismatic world. Its fairly regularly available, its pretty macho to collect, the market is fluid due to collectors coming and going rapidly and the value levels don't always make sense.

I personally like 19th century gold better as I view it as a more cerebral area to collect. It's clearly not as pretty (there is no doubt that Gobrecht and Longacre couldn't hold a candle to St. Gaudens as far as artistic talent is concerned) and it more monotonous as it goes on and on (and on). But if you have a budget of, say, $5,000 to $10,000 per coin, you can be a big player in 19th century gold while still being pretty much a nobody in the 20th century arena.

What are your takes on the Numismatic Versus that I compared and contrasted above? Email me at dwn@ont.com and let me know what you think.

Why Don't More People Collect 20th Century U.S. Gold Coins by Date?

Why don't more people collect 20th century gold coins by date? The four major designs (Indian Head quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles and St. Gaudens double eagles) are clearly among the most beautiful United States issues ever released. They are relatively short-lived and none of them are impossible to complete due to fabulously expensive or incredibly rare individual dates. So why, then, do these series lag such non-gold 20th century designs as the Lincoln Cent, Buffalo Nickel, Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar when it comes to numbers of active set collectors? I can think of a number of reasons. Some are pretty obvious while some are pretty far-fetched and I'm throwing them out there only to encourage debate. Here are some of the reasons I came up with:

1. 20th century U.S. gold is typically marketed as type coins and not by date. Traditionally, people have viewed coins like Indian Head half eagles as something you just need one of, not dozens. Simultaneously, higher grade 20th century gold coins are frequently sold more as "investments" than collectible coins. Over the last two decades, I have seen many collectors burst on the scene in a specific 20th century series only to flame out and sell their coins back a year or two later. The Steve Duckors and Austin Fursts of the 20th century gold world are alot rarer than their quick-in quick-out counterparts.

2. "They all look the same." A new collector once told me this when he decided not to continue with the Indian Head eagle set that I was helping him build. Now, I don't agree with this. If you become a student of, say, the Indian Head half eagle series it becomes clear that a 1911-D looks a lot different than a 1916-S. Its struck differently, has a different texture and has different coloration as well. But these subtleties are often lost on novice collectors.

3. There's too much difference in value for barely distinguishable quality. For many key date 20th century U.S. gold coins, the difference in price between an MS64 and an MS65 can be huge. As an example, an MS64 1913 Saint Gaudens double eagle is worth $7,500 or so while a no-question asked MS65 is worth over $50,000. It takes a real leap of faith for a new collector to pay a 7x premium for a difference in quality that he not only doesn't see but probably doesn't understand. The creation of CAC has made it a little less scary for a new collector to pay huge premiums for MS65's but from personal experience I know that the value for Gem coins just isn't always there.

4. There is no up-to-date reference work. David Akers wrote a terrific book on 20th century United States gold but it was published in 1988 and the information is out-of-date (not to mention that the book is out-of-print and fairly scarce). If Akers or a new expert were to take this book and update it with information that was relevant to the current coin market, this would be a huge shot in the arm for 20th century gold.

5. There is no sense of nostalgia inherent with these coins. People buy coins like 1909-S VDB Cents or 1916-D Dimes because they couldn't afford one when they were ten years old and filling holes in their blue Whitman folders. No one is haunted by the 1927-D Saint that they couldn't save enough money from their paper route to afford when they were a kid.

6. High grade 20th century gold coins are very expensive. It is a pretty serious financial commitment to collect Saints in Gem or Indian half eagles in MS64 and up. This obviously limits the number of people who can collect these coins.

7. Affordable grade 20th century gold is ugly. OK, maybe not "ugly." But you'll have a hard time convincing me that an Indian Head gold coin in EF and AU grades is remotely attractive. This is not the case with Liberty Head gold coins which is really attractive with limited wear.

8. Pricing information for many 20th century gold coins is hard to come by. Yes, its easy to figure out what a common date Saint is worth in a PCGS MS64 holder. But its not so easy to determine what a 1913 is worth in an NGC MS65 holder versus a PCGS MS65 holder versus a PCGS MS65 holder with CAC approval. If someone published accurate pricing information on the 20th century series, I believe it would jump-start collector interest.

9. There are few "go to" retail dealers for better date 20th century gold. If you collect 19th century Liberty Head gold, there are some obvious candidates who to buy from (and I'd like to think that DWN is one of them). The person who, in my opinion, is the sharpest dealer for rare date 20th century gold is Kevin Lipton and Kevin is a wholesale dealer who probably is going to be hard for many collectors to deal with as he has no website.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, 20th century gold coins deserve to have more date collectors than they currently do. These are attractive, interesting coins. They are within reasonably short-lived series and unless you attempt a Gem set, they are within the price range of many collectors. I'd be curious to know what your take is on why they are not as popular as Lincoln Cents or Mercury Dimes and invite you to send me an email at dwn@ont.com with your input.

Collecting U.S. Gold Coins On A Limited Budget

Of course everyone would like to not think twice about buying all sorts of cool, expensive gold coins. But most of us have a coin collecting budget that we have to hold to. Is it possible for the collector of average means to seriously collect US gold? I would contend that even with a reasonably small budget, a collector can have lots of fun in this area of the market and over the course of time put together a pretty neat collection. I’d say that you really need a minimum budget of $1,000-2,000 to buy reasonably interesting pre-1933 gold coins. You can buy coins in the $250-500 range but you are going to have to make compromises in quality or collect very esoteric areas like Period Two California Fractional gold. If you can live with the idea of quality over quantity and buy a bit less frequently, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much damage a thousand-dollar bill can do in the US gold coin market.

So, what can you do with a budget of $1,000-2,000 per coin?

Let’s say you a relative newbie to the coin market and you don’t have a high degree of comfort regarding your knowledge. An area like St. Gaudens double eagles might be a good place to start. You get the comfort of buying an ounce of gold with every purchase and you will own a coin that is incredibly liquid. A quick perusal of the most recent CDN Monthly Summary shows no less than twenty-five Saints that have a current wholesale bid of less than $2,000 per coin. Assuming that prices for these issues stay in this range (and my gut feeling tells me that MS63 Saints will be dropping in price in the near future) this means that a pretty significant collection could be built on a reasonable budget.

Another series that a collector without a huge budget can have a lot of fun with is Type Three gold dollars. I’ve recently sold coins like 1857 and 1858 gold dollars in PCGS MS64 (with CAC stickers!) for not much more than $1,000 and for just a bit less, you can buy many of the popular low-mintage dates from the 1880’s in the same grade. If you purchase coins graded MS63, many are $750 per coin or in some cases less. Yes, gold dollars are small. But you have to like the value of a 125-150 year old American gold coin in Choice Uncirculated (or better) for $750-1,250.

For overall value, it is hard to beat the Liberty Head quarter eagle series. Even though many of the branch mint issues from the 1840’s, 1850’s and 1860’s are rare and fairly expensive, the Philadelphia coins from all decades are mostly affordable. The post-1875 issues are especially reasonable from a price standpoint and it is possible to purchase some legitimately scarce coins for $1,000 or less. I am a very big fan of the 1840’s dates from Philadelphia and many can be bought in AU50 for less than $1,000; despite their obvious scarcity.

I’ve mentioned a number of times in the past year that I think No Motto half eagles and eagles from the Philadelphia mint are a very good value. To give you an idea, I sold a really choice NGC AU58 CAC approved 1852 half eagle this morning for $625. This is a 150+ year old gold coin with a basal value of $300. At $625, how can you go wrong? There are many other Philadelphia half eagles from the 1840’s and 1850’s that can be found in AU55 and AU58 grades for $1,000 and less. The eagles from this era are more expensive but choice, original AU55 coins are sometimes available for less than $1,000. A collector on a limited budget could put together a very nice date run of No Motto half eagles and eagles without breaking the bank.

Another area that still offers good value is the Liberty Head Type One series. There are, of course, many extremely expensive dates in this series and even the common issues tend to be expensive in higher grades. But nice EF45 to AU55 coins are available from time to time and many can be purchased for $1,500-2,000. As an example, I sold a pleasing 1855-S in PCGS AU50 the other day for $1,700. It’s not a really rare coin but it’s the second year of issue from this mint and it’s a date that jumps up in price appreciably once you hit the MS60 level.

If you don’t have a huge numismatic budget, don’t necessarily rule out pre-1933 gold coins. As I mentioned above, there are a lot of very interesting coins available for less than $1,000 and if you can get your budget up to $2,000 per coin, you have some seriously interesting options to choose from.

Opportunities for Collectors in a Generic-Oriented Market

After I left what was, for me, a very productive Baltimore coin show, I was sitting in a restaurant at BWI airport, eating a crab cake. As I was finishing up, a dealer who I don’t know that well but who I respect for his knowledge and his connections came up and asked if he could join me before our respective flights left. As you can no doubt guess, our conversation almost immediately turned to the market. As this dealer was quick to point out, as far as gold coins go, we are currently in one of the more confusing market segments that either of us could remember. He made a comment that I thought was really profound. He said something along the lines of “the market is so strange right now, that if I had a fresh deal of Saints or $20 Libs it would probably get other dealers more excited than if I had a group of fresh Proof gold coins.”

At first, I thought this comment was sort of odd. But the more I thought about, the more it made sense. The market is so oriented right now towards generics and “stuff” that many dealers have all but overlooked rare coins. And I think this presents a few really interesting opportunities for buyers who have some extra cash.

Generic gold is on fire for a number of reasons. The “guns and gold” crowd is buying gold because they have a fundamental distrust of the dollar and don’t like the direction that the U.S. economy is headed. Investors are buying American Eagles and other issues to put into their IRA’s in the hope that this year’s contribution outperforms last year’s stock purchase. And large-scale telemarketers are selling the heck out of double eagles to new buyers who have left more traditional investments and like the idea of owning some physical gold.

As is always the case when an area of the coin market gets hot, other areas are forgotten. When you go to a coin show now, it is very interesting to observe what some of the very savvy major buyers are doing. I know of at least two very smart, A-level dealers who have virtually stopped buying anything numismatic and are focusing almost exclusively on ten dollar and twenty dollar gold pieces. As I mentioned above, I think this has created some great opportunities for more numismatically-oriented dealers like me and for serious collectors.

One opportunity for rare coin buyers right now is for PQ coins. With so many traditional buyers of PQ rare gold coins focused on generics I have noticed that many really nice coins are bringing almost no premium over many really schlocky coins. This is especially the case with Charlotte and Dahlonega gold. At the Baltimore show I was able to purchase a few exceptional PQ coins for literally no more than a 5% premium over the usual crappy dipped-n-stripped stuff that I saw all over the bourse floor and in the auctions.

Another opportunity right now for a more select group of buyers is expensive coins. Most dealers (myself included...) are having a hard time selling coins priced at $10,000 and up. If you follow my website you will probably note that while, as recently as last year, I might have had ten or even twenty coins priced at $10,000 or more, right now I have very few.

If you have the money and you are a collector of five and six figure coins, I think you call the shots. Unlike in 2006 or 2007 when dealers had an easy time selling big coins, dealers are far more aware today of the difficulty inherent in selling these coins. My guess is that if your favorite dealer has a $15,000 coin in stock that you’ve had your eye on since December he’s probably more willing to sell it for $13,000 now than he was a few months ago. (And if he’s not, this is a good sign that your favorite dealer may be doing something else besides selling coins in the near future).

As I mentioned before “real coins” are currently out-of-favor with many dealers and some collectors as well. What does this mean for the serious collector? It may not translate to saving money on the coins you want (although it is likely that this is true). More likely, it means that you will actually get a chance to buy some of those hard-to-find issues that might have been causing you grief in years past. Let me give you an example. At the Baltimore show, I was able to get second shot at a group of interesting double eagles. The dealer who got first shot would have ordinarily bought every coin as they were interesting, not unreasonably priced and pretty choice. Instead, he passed on about half the coins and I bought everything that was left over. Why did he pass? My guess is that some of the coins were above the price level that he is currently selling well and that much of his focus is on generics as opposed to rare coins.

There is one other opportunity for collectors right now that I think deserves a quick discussion and that is selling some of the generics that everyone seems so focused on right now. If you bought Saints or Libs more than a year ago you are probably in a good profit position right now. Let’s say you have a bunch of MS65 Saints that your average cost is $1,200 and you can sell them today for around $2,000. It seems like a smart move to me to sell your position at an $800 per coin profit (not a shabby rate of return for a one-year investment during an economic meltdown...) and use the profits to buy a rare coin or two that you have your eye on.

12 Great Values in the Rare Date Gold Market Priced Below $5,000 Part Two: Eagles and Double Eagles

In the first part of this article, I discussed gold dollars, quarter eagles, three dollar gold pieces and half eagles priced below $5,000 that I felt were good values. In the second part, I am going to continue the same format but focus on eagles and double eagles. Given the popularity and high bullion value of these two denominations, you’d think that eagles and double eagles didn’t offer collectors in the $5,000 and under range many good values. This is far from the case. The eagle denomination contains so many exceptional values that I easily could have chosen over a dozen from the Liberty Head type alone. And there are a number of double eagles that are great values as well.

1. 1838 Eagle in VF and EF Grades

If you have a $5,000 and under budget, you won’t have a lot of opportunities to purchase an 1838 eagle. But if you can stretch your budget a bit and you have a chance to acquire a decent-looking example in a third-party holder, I would strongly encourage you to go for it. I absolutely love this issue. It is the first Liberty Head eagle and it has a low mintage figure of just 7,200. I’ve mentioned before that Trends values for this issue are absurdly low. As an example, the current values for an EF40 and EF45 1838 eagle are $2,900 and $4,025, respectively. This date is worth at least double in these grades but I still think it is a good value, given its historic significance and strong collector demand.

2. 1844 Eagle in EF

Since Philadelphia eagles from this era are not avidly collected by date, the 1844 is an issue that does not get a lot of respect. It is actually among the scarcest No Motto eagles. As of December 2008, PCGS had only recorded twenty-seven examples in all grades (including fifteen in EF) while NGC had recorded thirty-eight in all grades (including fourteen in EF). Allowing for resubmissions, I would estimate that there are around a dozen distinct third-party graded EF examples of the 1844 eagle. Heritage shows just three EF’s in their archives sold since 2000 and I have only handled two EF examples in this last decade. This date is still within reach of most collectors, despite its unquestionable rarity. Trends for an EF40 is $3,000 while an EF45 has a suggested value of $4,000. Were this a more popular series, I could easily see an EF 1844 eagle being worth $6,000-8,000.

3. Common Date No Motto Eagles in AU58

Properly graded, cosmetically appealing common date No Motto eagles from the 1840’s and 1850’s are far less available than one might assume, given current population figures. Let’s look at a random date—the 1851—as an example. As of December 2008, PCGS had graded a whopping two (!) in AU58 while NGC had graded forty-nine (including fifteen from the S.S. Republic). Now let’s assume that the thirty-four non-shipwreck AU58’s from NGC include a number of resubmissions as well as some coins that are not nice for the grade. This may leave us with as few as ten or so properly graded AU58’s. Trends for an 1851 eagle in this grade is just $2,500. So, I would contend that an 1851 eagle in nice AU58 at anywhere close to $2,500 is a fantastic bargain. The same holds true with other supposedly common dates like the 1847, 1848, 1850 Large Date, 1854, 1855, 1859 and 1860.

4. 1852-O Eagle in EF

If you have a budget of $5,000 and less per coin, you can get a lot of bang for your buck(s) in the area of New Orleans eagles. Many of the scarcer dates from the 1840’s and 1850’s are pricey in About Uncirculated but are very affordable in Extremely Fine. One of my favorite issues is the 1852-O. I rank this as the fifth rarest No Motto eagle from this mint (it is tied with the 1855-O and 1856-O) and there are probably fewer than 100 known from the original mintage of 18,000. The current Trends values for the 1852-O in EF40 and EF45 are $1,100 and $2,500. I’m guessing that you’ll have to pay more than this for nice, properly graded pieces but the fact that you can buy a very presentable example of this legitimately rare date for less $2,000 makes it an exceptional value, in my opinion.

5. 1855-O Eagle in EF

Another No Motto New Orleans eagle that I think offers the collector a lot of value is the 1855-O. This date is similar in overall rarity to the 1852-O. In fact, the mintage is identical with just 18,000 produced. What I like about the 1855-O is that while it is genuinely scarce in EF grades, it is not impossible to find. Looking through my records over the last five years, I have bought and sold six of them in EF (two in EF40 and four in EF45) and I have never sold an EF for more than $3,250. If this is a coin that interests you, I’d suggest that you look for a piece that has nice original color and surfaces. Strike is not an important factor on this date but eye appeal is and I would always pay a premium for a good looking example.

As an FYI, I would add the 1846-O, 1848-O, 1850-O, 1856-O and 1857-O as other No Motto New Orleans eagles in EF that are affordable but quite scarce.

6. Low Grade 1863 or 1864-S Eagles

These are two of the absolutely rarest dates in the entire Liberty Head eagle series. The 1863 has an original mintage of just 1,248 business strikes while the 1864-S has a mintage of 2,500. The 1863 has a Trends value of just $4,500 in VF while the 1864-S has a Trends value of $5,500 in VF. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you are going to have a pretty tough time finding an affordable example of either date. PCGS has graded just five 1863 eagles in VF and lower grades and just six of the 1864-S in this range. But if you are patient and keep the funds available, these coins do exist and they, in theory, should be available. I generally do not like gold coins in grades below EF but I would make an exception for either of these. In fact, I’d even buy an 1863 or an 1864-S that had been lightly cleaned.

7. 1872 Eagle

Here’s another really rare coin that won’t appeal to everyone who reads this article. Some collectors prefer higher grade coins and they are going to spend their $5,000 budget on a coin (or coins) that are Mint State or thereabouts. Others appreciate true rarity and will like coins like the 1872 eagle. This issue has a mintage of just 1,620 business strikes and a surviving population of three dozen or so. Unlike some of the other dates from this era, the 1872 is sometimes seen in higher grades and I know of two or three Uncirculated examples including a PCGS MS64. So what does five grand buy you in regards to this date? Heritage 6/08: 2150, a nice PCGS VF25 in an old green label holder, brought $4,313. If you are patient you should be able to buy a very presentable VF for around the same price.

8. 1915-S Eagle, MS62

A few years ago, there was a large spread in values between many of the rare date Indian Head eagles in MS62 and MS63. The reason for this was simple: there was a significant difference in visual quality between an MS62 and an MS63. Today, this is not really the case and many collectors have a hard time telling the difference between an MS62 and MS63. Because of this fact, the value spread between these two grades has shrunk. On a percentage basis, the greatest difference between these two grades is seen on the 1915-S. In MS62, a nice example is worth $7,000 or so. In MS63, the price jumps to $15,000+. In my opinion, a nice MS62 is a good value, especially if the coin has a CAC sticker.

9. 1854-S Double Eagle in EF

Unless you are a Type One double eagle specialist, you probably are not aware of the fact that the 1854-S is a scarce and much undervalued issue in all grades. What is confusing about this date is its relative availability in the lower Uncirculated grades as a result of a few small groups found in shipwrecks a few years ago. In circulated grades, however, the 1854-S is a really scarce issue, especially with original surfaces. Another important factor about this date is its strong historic significance. It is, of course, the very first double eagle produced at the San Francisco mint and it has strong Gold Rush association as a result. Trends for an EF40 is just $2,800 while an EF45 is $4,000. I believe that an attractive EF example at anything close to these levels is a great value.

10. 1855, 1856, 1857 and 1858 Double Eagles in AU

I have been a big fan of these four dates for many years. They are probably the most common coins that I have discussed so far in this article but “rarity” is a relative term and they are part of the very popular Type One double eagle series. If you look at a coin like an 1855 in AU58 and compare it to an 1851-O or an 1852-O in a similar grade, you’ll be impressed. As of December 2008, PCGS had graded twenty-one in AU58 as well as another fourteen higher. The figures for the 1852-O are thirty in AU58 with a dozen better. According to these numbers, the 1855 is certainly in the same league as the 1852-O. But look at the Trends values: the 1855 is $5,500 in AU58 while the 1852-O is $20,000. Now granted that the 1852-O is more popular and it is a branch mint coin. Is it worth nearly four times more, though? If I were a collector of double eagles, I’d want to put together a nice little date run of these four Philadelphia issues in AU58 while they were still affordable.

11. 1868 Double Eagle in AU

I first learned about the 1868 double eagle back in the 1980’s when you could buy a really nice example for less than $1,000. This is obviously not the case today but the 1868 remains the best value in the entire Type Two double eagle series. This date is reasonably available in EF grades but it becomes scarce in the medium AU range and it is quite rare in Uncirculated. Today, a nice AU55 can be bought for around $5,000. Given the fact that the Type Two double eagle series is currently out of favor, I think the opportunity factor for this date hasn’t been this good in a few years. When Type Two double eagles become popular again (and I can pretty much guarantee you they will...) I can see the price of the 1868 rising appreciably.

12. CAC Approved Slightly Better Date Double Eagles in MS64

The market for slightly better dates Saints is pretty interesting right now. Due to a number of factors, dates that formerly had a Market Premium Factor of 10-20% can be purchased for little or no premium over a common date. When the market for these coins becomes less out of whack, I would expect them to regain much of their old pricing premium. The key to buying these dates is holding out for solid coins for the grade and this is why I think paying a premium for CAC examples makes sense. The dates that I like most in MS64 are the 1907 No Motto, 1908-D, 1909-S, 1910, 1910-D, 1911-S, 1913-D, 1914-D and 1922. Not all of these can be bought for common date levels (and you are going to have to pay a premium for a nice CAC coin) but if you do some basic research you will note that a number of these can be bought at nice discounts relative to their highs in 2007/2008.

This was a hard article to write as I could have easily mentioned another dozen issues that I thought were good value at the sub-$5,000 level. Something that many new collectors do not realize is that interesting gold coins do not necessarily have to be “expensive” and that you do not have to be a rich person to put together a fine collection of U.S. gold.

Economic Impact on Numismatics

Coin dealers are lousy economists so I don’t want to waste your time discussing the economic background of the last few days. What I would like to share with you is my take on how it’s impacted my business and what I see are the short term effects of the credit crunch, liquidity crisis, Dow meltdown, etc. on the coin business. My business was screamingly active in July and August. It slowed down considerably in September and it has been extremely slow in October. I have read on a few dealers’ websites that they are still selling lots of rare coins and that they have people calling from out of the blue purchasing items from their inventory. I think this is a crock. Unless you are a dealer selling bullion right now, you probably (there are exceptions...) are not doing much coin business. You might be purchasing coins from clients who bought them a year or two ago but selling your existing inventory right now? I doubt it.

That’s not to say that the coin business has shut down entirely. It definitely has not. I’ve sold some nice collector grade coins in the past week and my wholesale business is actually a bit better than I would have expected. But my regular clients are taking a wait and see attitude towards the coin market, as am I. With the Dow dropping hundreds of points every day, it’s hard to be excited about the coin market right now.

As recently as a few weeks ago, I commented that the generic gold market was very weak and that premiums for $20 Libs and Saints were as low as at any time I could remember. You literally could not give away double eagles. Three weeks later and the world of generics is a very, very different place. As I write this, gold has a spot price of around $863 but Brilliant Uncirculated (MS60 to MS61) double eagles are worth between $1250 and $1300 each.

I actually recommended in one my recent blogs that it might be a good idea to stock up on gold as the premiums got so low and, for once (!) I was right. I think the moral of the story is that it’s a good idea to have a small position in double eagles for your personal protection and to move in and out of as premiums ebb and flow. My guess is that the premiums will stay very high for a while.

Here are some more thoughts and suggestions for rare coin collectors in these uncertain economic times:

1. If you are looking to time the market perfectly and sell at the height, you are probably too late. It looks like the peak for certain series may have been the spring of 2008. While I think it’s safe to say that faux rarities, widgets and low end “stuff” have seen their best days, I don’t necessarily think that the good times are over for really neat coins or really popular coins or coins that seemed undervalued as recently as thirty days ago.

2. If you were smart enough to buy double eagles at last month’s low premium, pat yourself on the back and start selling into the market. Yes, there is a good chance that gold will continue its upward climb but once the panic buyers have established their positions I would think that the currently high premiums will erode. I would certainly keep some of your position but I would strongly consider selling some of what you have at a nice profit and to maybe even considering putting the profit into rare coins.

3. Clearly, there will be new price levels soon for many series. If you collect early gold or Type Two double eagles or even modern Proof gold, the chances are pretty good that what you were buying on September 14 probably isn’t worth what it is on October 7th. No one—not even a connected expert like myself—is exactly certain what the new levels will be. Part of this depends on the willingness of dealers to sell coins for losses. I expect that the smart dealers out there will take the losses that make sense to them while the not-so-smart dealers will be stubborn and refuse, at least for now, to sell anything for a loss. I would think we’ll really start seeing what the new levels are at the 2009 FUN show and at the auctions surrounding this convention.

4. Whatever you do, don’t be a panic seller. Hopefully you bought coins with discretionary income and you made the decision to be a long-term collector who would stick with their coins through thick and thin. The last year or two was a good time to prune your collection and to get rid of mistakes, duplicates, widgets, etc. Hopefully you listened to my advice and did this. Hopefully you’ll also listen to me when I tell you that selling anything now that isn’t totally top quality might not be the best idea.

5. The “wild card” effect of the current economic chaos is that we may see a dramatic upward movement in gold, a wild run away from anything resembling stocks or bonds and even the return of rampant inflation. Any of these factors would have a significant impact on the rare coin market.

6. If prices do begin to drop and you have the assets available to allocate on coins, it might be a great time to buy. I heard lots of collectors complain that they’ve been priced out of their end of the market in the last few years by Nouveau Riche Accumulators. What if the majority of these NRA’s go away and you can suddenly afford to collect nice coins again?

MPF For St. Gaudens Double Eagles

One of the consequences of the soaring gold market is the evaporation of the Market Premium Factor (or "MPF") for certain semi-scarce dates in the St. Gaudens double eagle series. This scenario presents the savvy collector with what appears to be an interesting short-term opportunity. The term Market Premium Factor was invented, as far as I can tell, by my friend the newsletter writer/publisher Maurice Rosen. It refers to the premium that a better date coin sells for versus a common date. If a common date in a series is worth $1,000 and a slightly better date sells for $1,200 it has an MPF or 20%.

In the wake of the Great Saint Malaise, some dates that were formerly accorded market premium factors of 10-30% are suddenly selling for generic prices or just a bit more. There are a number of reasons why the generic double eagle market is currently as weak as it has been in recent memory. With gold blasting through the $1,000 mark, the gold content of a $20 Lib. or a Saint is enough that it becomes a sizable outlay of cash for the typical collector or investor; especially if being purchased in bulk quantities. Many new collectors and investors who are purchasing gold are buying modern U.S. mint products and eschewing older American gold. And many of the large-scale marketers who sold vast quantities of $20’s in the past are turning their focus to areas of the market where the profit margins are greater. These are the coins that, it seems to me, are good value right now.

Let me give you some examples of semi-better date Saints that are selling for the same price as generics but which are a lot scarcer (and, by the way, just in case you think I happen to have a double row box of these sitting in the back of my safe, I don’t...)

The 1910 is a date that I’ve always thought was pretty tough to find in properly graded MS64 and it is genuinely scarce in MS65. According to the most recent PCGS population figures, there are 1,057 graded in MS64 and 158 in MS65. Compare this to the common 1924 that has a current population of 60,451 in MS64 with 38,752 in MS65. In theory, the 1910 is 57 times scarcer in MS64 than the 1924. I’m not saying that the 1910 should sell for an enormous premium over the 1924. But in stronger markets, I can remember getting a decent premium for this date in grades as low as MS62.

Some of the other semi-better dates that have had good MPF’s in the past but which are currently selling for generic price levels (or close to generic levels) include the 1907 No Motto, 1908-D No Motto (in MS63 and below), 1909-S, 1910-D, 1912 and 1913 (in the lower Uncirculated grades) and 1920 (again, in MS63 and below).

Before you run out and buy a bunch of these, I have a caveat for you. One of the reasons that the MPF has evaporated many Saints is because of loose grading. I’m guessing that if you can find CAC approved 1910 double eagles in MS64, they ARE going to sell for a premium; as well they should. If you look at the price structure for many of the more common Saints graded between MS61 and MS64 you’ll note very small price spreads. One of the major reasons for this is that there is often very little difference in quality between these grades (!).

That said, I still like the idea of buying a group of 1910 Saints in PCGS MS64 for common date prices if you have the opportunity. At these levels, you have very little downside other than the price of gold dropping and with the current state of the United States economy I don’t foresee this happening anytime soon.